The move would acknowledge the maturation of the five-year-old command as it supports U.S. operations against Islamic State and other high-level missions.
Senate Armed Services Committee leaders are considering using the annual defense policy bill to make U.S. Cyber Command its own combatant command rather than the subset of U.S. Strategic Command it is now.
Making Cyber Command one of several combatant commands that span the globe would further prioritize cyberspace as a warring domain for the U.S. military. It would also recognize the command's maturation as it supports U.S. operations against the Islamic State terrorist group.
"I think if you look at the dimensions of the threat, [it] certainly deserves to have the highest level of attention and coordination in government," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the committee's chairman, told reporters April 5 in explaining his support for making Cyber Command a combatant command. McCain said the provision is under consideration for inclusion in the forthcoming National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal 2017.
The fight against Islamic State is essentially Cyber Command's first wartime assignment, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said later in the day at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. That assignment includes thwarting the group's ability to command and control forces and pay its operatives, he added.
In the coming weeks, Carter said he will discuss with lawmakers the Defense Department's recommendations for reforming the Goldwater-Nichols Act, which governs the military's chain of command. In outlining those recommendations, he said, "we should consider changes to cyber's role in DOD's Unified Command Plan," though he did not explicitly say Cyber Command should be elevated.
Based alongside the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Md., Cyber Command has drawn on NSA's technical acumen to hone its cyber expertise. The command declared full operational capability in October 2010.
Lawmakers have increasingly used NDAA to shape Cyber Command. The fiscal 2016 legislation gave it new acquisition authorities that its commander, Adm. Michael Rogers, said he is still sizing up.
At the Armed Services Committee hearing, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) warned that "some of the saddest stories of waste have been in the acquisition of IT within the military, [and] frankly within government."
Sharpening the cyber tools
Rogers said in January that Cyber Command's offensive and defensive capabilities were at a tipping point and "that you will see us start to apply [those capabilities] in a broader and broader way." But the hacking and defensive tools at Cyber Command's disposal came under scrutiny during the recent hearing.
"There are shortages and capability shortfalls in the toolkits available for the cyber protection teams," said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the committee’s ranking member.
McCain said he was concerned that the U.S. military was building a "hollow cyber force" because funding wasn't going to the right technical solutions.
"Some [military] service budgets omitted funding for even the most basic tools, like those necessary for cyber protection teams to assess and triage compromised networks," said McCain, who also blamed Russia for the hack that knocked out part of the Ukrainian power grid last December.
Better cyber tools could be on the way to the Pentagon. DOD's Rapid Reaction Technology Office plans to host a pitch session in June or July for firms to show off their IT capabilities.
A recurring complaint from lawmakers throughout the two-hour hearing was the apparent lack of a clear policy framework through which DOD responds to cyberattacks. Rogers said his command generally handles threats on a case-by-case basis but is interested in a response protocol that is "much more broadly defined and well understood."